Airu is a slinky minx with perky features and big green eyes. Normally, for the price of a good sandwich, she will come padding over and wait to be stroked, but today she’s being standoffish. Frankly – according to her profile – she’s more popular with people than cats, but at least she’s not drinking water from the sink, which is one of her favourite pastimes.
Every day dozens of people pay about £7-per-hour to sip soft drinks and cuddle Airu, one of 11 cats at the Caterium café in West Tokyo. Each has its own profile and photograph on a board which lists their personalities and hobbies. Some even have twitter accounts and DVDs. A shrine with photos and messages from well-wishing fans has been constructed for a moggie that passed away last year. “She was very popular,” laments owner Yuki Shigemuri.
Once considered a mainly Japanese phenomenon, cat cafes are spreading to Europe, with one each in Austria and St Petersburg and more planned elsewhere. In London, an entrepreneur is trying to raise £108,000 via crowd-funding to set up Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium. “I think Brits will take to it,” founder Lauren Pears told The Independent. “Lots of people live in small flats or their working lives make it impractical to keep pets.”
Residents of Tokyo, home to about 40 cat-themed cafes, have lived with those restrictions for years, points out Shigeru Onozaki, a real estate agent who dropped by the Caterium on his day off. “Our image of the UK is that people have big homes and always keep pets,” he says as a cat stretches out into a shoebox near his head. “In Tokyo, about half of all real-estate agents ban pets.” Many people are, in any case, too busy to keep them, he adds. “I rarely get home till after 8pm. A cat would starve.”
Cat-themed cafes began in Taiwan and took off a decade ago in Japan’s crowded cities, where apartments are often too cramped for pets, even when landlords allow them. Today, there are about 160 throughout Japan, along with hundreds of shops that rent dogs and other pets out for hourly rates.
Sociologists believe the cats fill a void in an ageing country with too few children - Japan’s population fell last year by 264,000, its largest drop in decades. But Mr Shigemuri says his customers come in all shapes and sizes.
“We do get quite a few lonely-looking women, but we are also popular with children and dating couples. Sometimes salary-men drop in on the way home from work for a cuddle.” A former counsellor for bereaved pet-owners, Mr Shigemuri says stroking cats is a stress-reliever for many people. “Cats are quiet, pliant and clean – a lot easier to maintain than dogs, which you have to walk and look after. They calm you down.”
The cats themselves, stuck indoors and pampered by a string of adoring customers, can be sensitive; after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Mr Shigemuri says they stayed cowering in a corner for days.